CONCORD, N.C. – Chase Elliott plowed into the Turn 1 barrier with enough force to set off the airbags in a road car … and then won the race 44 laps later.
The world’s best drivers skidded on nearly every lap through two tricky speed traps on a superspeedway originally designed to push mph limits to the max.
Crew chiefs deviously plotted to game the system by determining whether it’s smarter to skip required sections of the course and instead serve stop and go penalties.
The beguiling mix of madness and mayhem reaffirmed that Sunday brought another witnessing of Peak NASCAR at its most irresistibly entertaining and, yes, silly.
The Roval is 17 turns and 2.32 miles of big, dumb fun, but it also was a brilliant and bold masterstroke by Marcus Smith (with a playoff cutoff race scheduling assist by NASCAR) to make Charlotte Motor Speedway’s fall race relevant again.
The notion of, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for saving the bland night racing on our historic 1.5-mile oval … let’s turn it into a quasi-street course that automatically becomes the toughest track in NASCAR’s premier series!” is an inspired stroke of counterintuitive genius.
It is innovative because it is so goofy in so many ways.
Train racing and Figure 8s never will make their way to Cup (we think), so the Roval will have to serve as the nearest cousin to the Saturday night short track creations that put stock car racing in its own league of necessary craziness.
NASCAR, a soap opera on wheels that has been renewed into its eighth decade, often is at its most appealing when it perilously straddles the line between circus and sport.
While other series such as IndyCar and Formula 1 toe a much harder line on competitive purity (and marshal its rules under the direction of strict stewards), NASCAR always has titled more toward seat-of-the-pants entertainment. That’s not just in its approach to determining championships but also in race management and the willingness to embrace virtually anything (Stages! Double-file restarts! All-you-can-eat Green-white-checkered finishes!) that can enhance “the show.”
They are different philosophies to approaching auto racing, and neither is wrong.
But one certainly is more haphazard.
And the Roval is the racing embodiment of NASCAR at its most gloriously shambolic.
“Hybrid” often is used to describe the abrupt connections of temporary chicanes, off-cambered corners and narrow transitions that don’t flow nearly as well as any natural terrain road course of sloped elevation changes and wide runoff areas.
This is the Dr. Frankenstein monster of a road course, but that doesn’t mean it’s a blight on racing. No less an authority than the legendary Mario Andretti proclaimed the road course as a gem with “phenomenal” sightlines as good as any in motorsports.
Another way to describe the Roval – and a term used quite often the past two years in the garages at Charlotte– is that it’s a delightful @#%!show that delivers the kind of nonstop unpredictability (the leader has wrecked on a restart two consecutive years!) and emotional bonanza that NASCAR was built upon.
Though both editions of this race have been mesmerizing, what happened afterward – whether it’s Bubba Wallace splashing an ailing Alex Bowman with Powerade while Chase Elliott channeled Russell Crowe in a victory celebration, or Jimmie Johnson and the series holding its collective breath while the 2018 playoff standings were tabulated – also measures up as just as compelling.
But there is a major caveat to all the goodness derived from chaos.
It’s possible to have too much awesome fun.
Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, underscored this during a Monday interview on SiriusXM NASCAR’s The Morning Drive. Gordon said his team explored if it might be better to blow through the backstretch chicane (i.e. at the roughly 170 mph-plus speeds of the Coca-Cola 600) rather than properly driving through.
Consider how much wilder – and probably untenable – the action would have been if NASCAR hadn’t foiled this nefarious plan by clarifying that any advance of position by cutting a chicane would result in a pass-through penalty (and not just the usual stop and go for missing it).
That was good preemptive officiating by NASCAR, which also did a fine job of managing the chicanes during Sunday’s race and ensuring the many offenders were punished.
But the news wasn’t so good with caution flags. There were at least four spins (including Alex Bowman making contact with Bubba Wallace on the first lap) that somehow didn’t merit a yellow, meaning that roughly for every two cautions for spins, there was at least one spin that wasn’t a yellow.
Two of the cautions were for single-car spins in which neither car needed assistance or was damaged in a way that scattered debris – both usually the conditions for a road-course caution.
Because NASCAR doesn’t employ “local” yellows (in which conditions apply only to a section of the track), the importance of being consistent is paramount in being fair to teams. It’s akin to an umpire establishing a strike zone by the end of the first inning and sticking to it: If there’s a spin that’s a caution, all similar spins also must be yellows.
Things are way less fun amidst the confusion of guessing when the yellows will fly.
There also were multiple instances in which NASCAR struggled to get the order correct, namely a caution in which Elliott started three spots behind Kevin Harvick despite beating him out of the pits. There also were an agonizing four laps of yellow between Stages 1 and 2 because the field couldn’t be reordered for a one-lap restart (despite coming off a harmless single-car spin).
As righteously difficult as the Roval is to navigate and strategize for drivers and crew chiefs, it is proving just as hard for NASCAR to manage.
While 17 turns are a lot to monitor, the size and scope of the track aren’t a valid excuse for struggling to adjudicate the race (NASCAR does just fine with Road America’s 4.2-mile track). NASCAR is reviewing the possibility of adding spotters around the Roval to help make calls more efficiently and quickly. That’s good, because there’s much more at stake.
Complicating the balance of entertainment and integrity is that this is a playoff race. Everyone’s game – officials included – must be raised to withstand the greater scrutiny.
The circus is fun, but next year, please send in a few less clowns and a few more corner workers to help ensure consistency with calling the caution flags.
Because there assuredly will be many in this big, dumb and massively fun race that has become one of the most unlikely treats of the Cup season.
Forgotten after Sunday’s unforgettable race was that IndyCar and NASCAR seemed to take another major step toward each other with Josef Newgarden’s six hot laps around Charlotte’s road course generating lots of buzz and positive chatter.
IndyCar doesn’t resume until March 2020, but NASCAR already should be targeting a race where it can have a star (preferably a former champion) working the paddock … or maybe even turning laps the way Newgarden did at Charlotte.
That’ll help build the momentum for the doubleheader discussion that has a lot of big names talking (“Why wouldn’t we bring those guys to race with our sport and join ours? I think it’s a great idea,” Clint Bowyer said on NASCAR America last week) but still needs to convince some major domos on both sides.
IndyCar has indicated a willingness to race on Saturday nights and allow NASCAR to have the Sunday slot – a compromise that should help engender an American motorsports extravaganza on a single weekend.
What we would like to see: Two doubleheaders. One certainly should be in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with NASCAR taking second billing on the layout for the Indy Grand Prix.
The second preferably would be at the Roval (with NASCAR in the prime slot), but that will require some schedule reworking. That might naturally happen for other reasons, though, by 2022 (or maybe even ’21)
Other tracks that have been bandied about as possibilities are Richmond Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway, both of which will play host to both series next year (Phoenix Raceway also would be an option if IndyCar worked out a return).
Another possibility? Daytona International Speedway, which once played host to IMSA and NASCAR on the same July race weekend. Using the track’s road course and oval on consecutive days could allow for both NASCAR and IndyCar to showcase themselves without worrying about the optics of speed disparities between the series on the same course.
Imagine a pair of doubleheaders at the country’s two most famous racetracks: Indianapolis and Daytona.
Another way to build IndyCar-NASCAR collaboration? Loosen the testing restrictions that both series have to make exceptions. Though Newgarden has talked openly about a ride swap (or just racing a Cup car in general), Team Penske president Tim Cindric explained that “it’s hard to get approval for these things.
“The testing schedule is so difficult, and the teams are so competitive,” Cindric said. “Everyone gets some advantage by (Newgarden) driving a Cup car or an Xfinity car or Joey (Logano) in an Indy car.
“You can maybe do one once in a while, but they’re all looking at what advantage are you gaining by doing that? There’s something to be said in all these series for drivers who aren’t in that series being able to run and try things. Maybe more openness to that would help some situations. It’s very difficult from where I sit aside from the financial perspective to do something productive and give them a chance where it’s not a boondoggle but a real chance to experience it.”
Beyond being a great experience, lest we forget the NASCAR-Formula 1 ride swaps of Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya at Indy in 2003 and Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton at Watkins Glen International in 2011 were terrific exposure opportunities, too, and they helped attract nontraditional media.
NASCAR should sit down with Bubba Wallace for splashing Powerade in Alex Bowman’s face after Sunday’s race. It was a regrettable move (even if it instantly became stock footage for all future promotional feud reels), particularly with innocent bystanders also being sprayed (a sticky situation for Pepsi endorser Jeff Gordon to be unwillingly doused with a chief rival’s product).
But when executive vice president Steve O’Donnell announced he would be talking to Wallace … shouldn’t he have added that NASCAR officials also will be sitting down Bowman, who wrecked Wallace without compunction solely for having the temerity to wave his middle finger at him (because Wallace had crashed Bowman on the first lap)?
Yes, Bowman was sitting on the ground in a semi-prone position that left him mostly defenseless. But he wasn’t undergoing any medical treatment beyond having water poured on his head, and Wallace took no action that could have hurt Bowman.
The harm that Bowman potentially could have done to Wallace at speed during the race was far greater. Even in a low-speed corner, hooking a car in the right rear to send it driver’s side into a wall and then boasting about it with impunity afterward sends a message that’s about as positive as confronting a competitor in distress postrace.
Speaking of discussions involving Bowman and Wallace, we may never learn what was briefly said between the two after the Roval.
But upon a slo-mo, Zapruder-esque review (and help from some lip-readers) of multiple camera angles of the video above (watch at the 1:11 and 1:36 marks), it would seem to be a less than friendly greeting from Bowman punctuated by a vulgarity.
That’s not meant to excuse Wallace’s reaction, but the context probably should be considered in any full analysis (by NASCAR, media, fans, etc.) about what happened.
In the new Dale Jr. Download podcast, the eponymous host makes another plea to repave Bristol Motor Speedway with asphalt (as it was in its pre-concrete days).
Marcus Smith, chairman of the company that owns Bristol and the guest on the podcast, tries to placate Earnhardt by saying, “Maybe we’ll have a dirt race at Bristol one day.”
“Wow!” Dale Jr. says. “Dirt race at Bristol!”
“I’m going to call it the Dale Jr. Invitational,” Smith replies.
That’s pretty funny stuff … though are we sure Smith is kidding about his plans for a track that once played host to a World of Outlaws race?